How Important is Reputation?

by Dan on February 19, 2010

I’ve been wanting to write about this subject for a while.

I have a strong opinionated friend who’s been meaning to get into the blogosphere and speak his mind.  He’s got a lot to say, and has some very unique reference experience that would make his viewpoint very valuable.

So why is he not blogging?

It’s not laziness, success barriers, or deservedness issues.  This time it’s something simple:  reputation protection.

“If I start writing about something too controversial, and the public doesn’t like it, my reputation is ruined.  I won’t be able to find a job and will be outcast socially.”

These thoughts are not illogical, and certainly not uncommon.  In fact, they’re even partially true.

However, the idea of actually ruining your reputation is scarcely a threat.   Let me explain why:

1)    Reputation is Niche-Specific

Your reputation management depends precisely on what your goals are.  If you want to succeed in a bureaucracy like the District Attorney’s Office, the public school system, the FBI, or a Fortune 500 company, then yes, your reputation does matter.  Because bureaucratic organizations are so large and extensive, each individual member has strikingly small power to make a difference.  This leads to one thing:  RULES.  Hard and fast, the organization is loaded with red tape.  If you have a marijuana conviction, you’re out.  If there’s a sexual harassment complaint out of the office, you’re out.

Anyone out of those organizations, however, knows that the rules are much more flexible in smaller entities.  There might not be a drug test, and even if you have a recent murder conviction, the CEO can make a judgment call to hire you.

And we all hear cases of unpunished scandal.  If you are well liked enough, there’s enough wiggle room to get through it.

Now, as I was alluding to before, what are your goals?  If it’s to be rich, powerful, and well liked, then there’s very little you can do to ruin it.  Oh you can be blackballed from plenty of organizations, but if you are good at what you do, there will always be someone welcoming you with open arms.

This brings me to my second point:

2)    Value Overrides All

It works in dating, business, friendship, and just about anything else.  If you are bringing enough value to the table, there’s little that can’t be forgiven,

[Mild Avatar Spoiler Alert]

One of my favorite scenes in Avatar is when Jake Sully makes his return to Pandora to reconcile with the Na’vi.  They have lost all faith in him, as he has not been truthful with them, and has led to them being in danger of total destruction.  Even his girlfriend Neytiri is done with him

How does he solve this?

He rides in on a red dragon named Toruk.

That’s it.

No explanation, but all is forgiven.  Neytiri is back in his arms, and it’s all well and good.

Call it aggravating as a plot device, but it sure as hell is realistic.  No matter what you’ve done, if you can ride a red dragon no one else can tame, then you’re someone that’s wanted.  Neytiri no doubt knew that the rest of the women would be enthralled to take the Toruk rider if she wasn’t down for Sully anymore.

[End Spoiler]

Do we have real life Toruks?  Yes.

  • Michael Jackson was widely considered to be a child molester, yet still sold millions of albums after the scandal.  In fact, his Neverland Ranch for children still had customers!  If you’re the King of Pop, there’s a lot you can get away with.
  • Kevin Trudeau has served jail time for credit card scams and identity theft.  He’s also been fined many times for fraudulently promoting supplements, as well as selling customer information to junk mailers and blatantly lying about his products on the air.  However, he still makes millions of dollars off his books, and is not at a loss for supporters.
  • Ann Coulter publicly declares evolution to be a liberal conspiracy to remove God from America. She has been caught lying numerous times (Go to Borders and read her Slander book next to Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them, and see for yourself.)  If she’s backed into a corner for saying something offensive, she’s known to respond with nonsensical answers, such as “The word ‘faggot’ isn’t offensive to gays.”  She’s been dropped by several publications for her behavior.  Even with this, she can book herself solid for both publications and speaking engagements years in advance.
  • David Icke is a conspiracy theorist who claims the world is secretly run by shapeshifting lizards from the constellation Draco (including George W. Bush).  He still sells tons of books, and has a large following of supporters and listeners.

Check out the Wikipedia entries for any of these characters.  There are cited sources for all of these allegations.

My point here is that as long as you confidently stand your ground and can make people money, or simply provide a service someone is looking for, your reputation is a non-issue.  Maybe 88%  of the world thinks you’re a sick jackass, and 11% doesn’t know you exist.  That remaining 1% can still fill your pocketbooks and provide you a free place to stay in any major city in the world.

Are there people ruined by reputational errors?  Of course.  O.J. Simpson’s popularity has never recovered.  It’s tough to get off the hook for (allegedly) murdering your ex-wife.

Ted Haggard is another man ruined by public exposure.  However, I think had his choices been different, he still would have been successful, in at least some area.  As I’ve said reputation is niche specific.  If you’re a man of the church and caught sleeping with other men, then your time at the pulpit is over, at least in conservative circles.  However, once he was exposed, he could have said “You know what, I’m proud of what I did.  I think homosexuality is approved by God and even supported by the New Testament!”  From there on, liberal Christians who want to believe that homosexuality is compatible with the Bible would treat him as a hero.

Note that I don’t think that imagined quote makes much sense, nor would this be an easy transition to make.  However, I do think his public image could have been salvaged.  His problem was that he admitted his errors and sought forgiveness and redemption for betraying his community.  If you want to transcend reputation, you can’t be intimidated by public disapproval, which he most certainly was.

In the end, as long as you’re good at what you do, and say what you believe in, you can rest assured that your life will be fine regardless of public scrutiny.  If you’re an obvious charlatan, then well, make sure you’re extremely talented.

–Dan

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Stephen February 24, 2010 at 1:04 pm

“In the end, as long as you’re good at what you do, and say what you believe in, you can rest assured that your life will be fine regardless of public scrutiny.”

The life of Adolph Hitler refutes this. He was very good at what he did, and he said what he believed in, but his life ended in suicide and eternal shame.

And the main reason why Hitler succeeded for 12 years – until greater forces (I think including God) destroyed him – was because he was popular. QED, the “market” of popularity is no guarantee against ruin.

On the other hand, General Robert E Lee was popular AND very good at what he did. And he was a morally good man too, for the most part. But he, too, was defeated in the end.

In sum: Worldly success is NOT identical with being favoured by, or being in accord with, God (or “The Universe”). And worldly success, including but not limited to material wealth, has absolutely nothing to do with being a truthful person.

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